As noted in my associated post , the main theme of this tutored tasting was to demonstrate the age worthiness of great German wines. Overall, the guidelines were 20 years (optimistically speaking) for the dry Rieslings, 10+ years for well-structured, Pinot Noirs, and, of course, longer for the sweeter styles. ‘Nuff said.
The discussion was relatively wide-ranging, stimulating and extremely informative. Of course, the VDP provided marvelously detailed technical information for each wine, so time was not lost by people asking alcohol and residual sugar levels. That said, both the materials and the wines themselves showed the influence of climate change, with increasing alcohol levels. While one producer quipped that Germany loves climate change, as it has enabled growers to produce, for example, much bigger, riper Pinot Noirs (the so-called “Burgundy style,” in contrast to the lighter, leaner Pinot Noirs of 20, 30 years ago). It benefitted Riesling producers, too, as warmer weather (most of the time) allowed for lower acidity levels, which brought better balance to the dry wines, especially in the Mosel. Bottom line: climate change has helped Germany adapt to current wine fashion.
It has come at a cost, however. The 1971 Wine Law is less relevant now – wine quality cannot be judged by sugar levels. It used to be a challenge, say, to achieve 85 Oeschle, but no longer. The sugars might be more reliable, but what about “the struggle,” as Annegret Reh-Gartner mentioned – the need for a long, slow, relatively difficult ripening period, necessary for Riesling to develop complexity and delineation of flavors? Thus stay tuned for new changes in German wine law, which also promise to harmonize, or better, simplify, the Erstes Gewächs/Grosses Gewächs classification. Here’s hoping!
Naturalists, take note: The materials also noted which wines were made with natural yeasts and which used cultured yeasts. The panel was careful to be politically correct and not suggest that one was better than the other. Rather, natural yeasts are used by producers who prefer what Annegret Reh-Gartner referred to as “the stink,” the edgier, sweatier note they seem to elicit in Riesling. In this instance it is a matter producer’s personal style, and whether s/he wants that character in the wine. Others producers, quite understandably, prefer to feel they can sleep at night, and opt for a commercial yeast that they know will produce a complete fermentation. Thus, Dr. Wehrheim, for example, uses a commercial yeast that will be relatively fruit-forward, yet leave room for expression of minerality. It was also noted that some sites are so poor they produce grapes that simply cannot ferment to dryness with native yeasts alone. This may be a function of Riesling’s tendency not to ferment through to dryness based on the grape itself (asserted by some), or the nutrient deficiency of the site, or high sugar levels (or a combination of these factors). Thus, if one desires to produce a dry Riesling, a commercial strain may be the only reliable way to do so. (Johannes Hasselbach of Gunderloch remarked that they add a cultured yeast after the natural wine yeasts are dead, which is when the must reaches about 40 Oe, then allowing their wines to complete the fermentation.)
This leads to the question of dry vs. sweet German Riesling. The German market for years now has preferred the drier styles; a few of the producers said that at least 2/3 of their production was dry wines. Stefan Ress, who presented the one flight of Spätlesen, talked of the “dual leadership of Riesling,” namely, that German Riesling can be successful whether dry or sweet, and that historically, Germany has produced both. In other words, he countered the assertion (usually made by someone selling dry German Rieslings) that historically Germany made dry wines, and it was only in the last 60 years did the sweeter (or “fruitier”) styles emerge. Those who have tried to state that dry Riesling is really the “classic” and “traditional” Riesling have largely argued that the sweeter styles weren’t possible before the development of sterile filtration in the 20th century. But this elides the fact that as noted, the natural yeasts often didn’t complete a fermentation, hence leaving residual sugar. The yeasts were dead, and didn’t need to be filtered out. This argument also doesn’t account for the fact, noted above, that apparently it is not uncommon for Riesling fermentations to stick, leaving residual sugar. (I’m still trying to get to the bottom of this.) Or the fact that before the advent of climate change, Germany was certainly at the northern limits of European viticulture, and the high acidity of Riesling grown in such a cool climate required a certain degree of residual sugar to be a balanced wine. Discounting those who are promoting the dry wines for whatever reason, it seems to me that Germany has produced wines with diverse levels of sweetness, from dry to wines now classified from Kabinett through TBA. And isn’t that diversity of style, in Germany alone, part of what makes Riesling arguably the greatest grape? (And in Germany, the greatest expression of this diversity, irrespective of wine fashion?)
Perhaps the other major theme discussed concerned the evolution of German wines. Climate change has been a factor, certainly. Domestic demand for dry wines (whether a consequence of a reach-for-the-polar-opposite of Liebfraumilch, or a French=dry=fine wine notion) has led producers to give the people what they want. There is no question that dry German Rieslings appear far better balanced than they did even 10 years ago, when screaming acidities rendered — to my view — a great percentage of wines pinched and angular, if not tart and charmless. (And I think some of them are still that way.) Additionally, the international experience of younger German winemakers (as well as a perceived demand for bigger, richer wines than the leaner red wines Germany has traditionally produced) has prompted many to experiment, to try to produce wines similar to ones they’ve been exposed to elsewhere in the world – especially as Pinot Noir is concerned.
And as for German Pinot Noir, the wines presented clearly demonstrated a significant improvement in quality over the past 10 to 15 years. The wines presented had more definition, clarity and poise than they did in years past. After my last visit to the Kaiserstuhl in 2007, I noted improvements, but the progression has continued. At that time, I still thought German Pinot Noirs, which were priced similarly to Burgundy, simply were not worth the money. Premier cru Burgundy is now a luxury item, and German Spätburgunden offer an appetizing, intellectually and sensually satisfying cool-climate, Old World experience at a respectable and fair price. I look forward to more of these seminars and other opportunities to explore the continuous improvement of these wines, and urge others to do so as well.